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The North Carolina Symphony played two works on a program centered on Beethoven at Cape Fear Community College’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center. The first was Absolute Jest by John Adams. In this, the orchestra, under the baton of Grant Llewellyn, continued its presentations of recent works as a part of its NC Symphony Wilmington series. This particular work had its premiere in 2012 and takes Beethoven as its central material, albeit radically reimagined in chamber and orchestral sound and in harmony.
John Adams, who was born in 1947, became widely known by the 1970s as a pioneer of minimalism. This style works with many repetitions of small musical elements that change gradually over time. By the 1980s, Adams had embraced the music of Wagner, and the minimalist style itself evolved into what is now called post-minimalism. Here, small repeating elements are incorporated into a lush, romantic sound, at times with a developmental quality as well. Absolute Jest is in this style.
The piece is rhythmically driven and, with a high energy level and colorful character, quite entertaining. It is written for the unusual pairing of string quartet and orchestra. It’s no surprise that there is a strong juxtaposition of sonorities. The orchestral sound certainly has qualities of Romanticism but is also very up-to-date in its unusual and imaginative instrumental combinations. At the same time, the key element is Beethoven as the concrete point of reference throughout. This is reflected by direct quotation of melodies and a famous rhythm. Sometimes these recalls are blunt, other times they flow into the atmosphere of the sound. Though there are numerous references appearing throughout the piece, the most dominant is the long-short-long rhythm of the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. This begins Absolute Jest in a shimmering tone and is present a great deal as the work unfolds. Nonetheless, it is not so much a unified piece as a kaleidoscope of sound, rhythm, and melody. In this way, it is very suggestive of Ives. As with Ives, the listener may be best served by simply experiencing the piece intuitively. “Go with the flow.”
The string quartet functions principally as a single unit, contrasted with the sonority and material of the orchestra. A number of the quotations are actually from Beethoven’s string quartets, with the orchestra providing energized rhythmic and timbral counterpoint. At times the quartet joins the orchestra in its pulsing rhythms. It also had some rich beauty of its own.
The quartet featured the orchestra’s superb principal players. All are soloists and chamber artists as well as leading players in the North Carolina Symphony. Their performance matched the dynamism of the work and in the brilliant sections was nothing short of virtuosic.
The orchestra played with color and vitality. A few points of rhythmic shakiness were brief moments inside a performance that successfully pulled together the disjunct elements the piece thrives on. Music director Llewellyn's beat was almost always rhythmic; this was not the place for showcasing nuance of phrasing, which is one of his standout strengths. Conductor and ensemble worked energetically together and the result was something of a musical party. There were a couple of ringing climaxes, notably at the ending intensification of rhythm and sonority – which then gave way to a surprising retreat into calm and silence.
The second half was taken up entirely with Beethoven’s exquisite 45-minute violin concerto. This essentially lyrical work was a complete reversal of character from the preceding Adams. It was treated to a reflective performance that was nothing short of magnificent.
The masterful soloist was Noah Bendix-Balgley. Hailing originally from Asheville – yes, a North Carolina native – he is now 1st concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, a position on the apex of the international musical world.
His performance emphasized beauty of phrase and expressive warmth throughout. Every line was finely shaped. This was especially noticeable in the many high-lying passages. No matter how far up the line arced or soared, not only was the phrasing impeccable, but the purity of tone was ravishing. The quality of his high notes was, simply put, memorable.
The leisurely pace gave ample space to Bendix-Balgley’s expressive qualities. Even so, it was a potential drawback that the first movement Allegro ma non troppo and the second movement Larghetto were more similar in momentum and character than the overall design of the work would seem to suggest. Still, it was beauty to revel in. Perhaps at times the soloist wished for more propulsion, as here and there in the first movement he got a little ahead of the orchestra. The third movement was also on the leisurely side, while played at times with a gentle and appealing lilt. The cadenzas were rendered with consummate solo command; one stand-out place was the brief transition to the third movement, which worked up an unexpected amount of drama.
Llewellyn and the orchestra supported and interplayed wonderfully with the artistry of their soloist. In the first movement they entered beautifully in the bass against the higher range of the violin. One particularly evocative place was the turn to the darker minor early in the development; later an air of mystery crept in before the recapitulation. There were repeated passages of beautiful intertwining between the winds and the violin. At the same time, the dramatic breakouts were bracing.
The second movement had a lovely meditative opening and more beautiful violin-wind interaction. The section with the violin over pizzicato strings was extraordinary.
The third movement brought this performance to a rousingly-received conclusion. The jewel-like perfection of the music-making should linger long in the memory of those who heard it.
This program will be repeated May 2 in Chapel Hill. For more information on that event, see the sidebar.